January 17, 1926 - January 31, 2006
Ballet dancer Moira Shearer, who starred in movie The Red Shoes, has died
The Scottish dancer died in an Oxford hospital on Tuesday, her broadcaster
husband Ludovic Kennedy said.
"She was full of spirit and also she was very beautiful," he
said. "She moved wonderfully gracefully as you would expect of a
Kennedy said Shearer, whom he married in 1950, gradually become weaker
after her birthday in January.
Born in Dunfermline in 1926, Shearer became a member of the Sadler's Wells
Ballet school from the age of 14.
By 1946 she was proficient enough to dance a leading role in Les Sylphides
and to play Aurora in The Sleeping Beauty.
In 1948 she starred in classic movie The Red Shoes, based on a Hans Christian
Andersen fairytale about a pair of bewitched red shoes that compelled
the wearer to dance until she died.
Moira Shearer obituary Despite her acclaimed performance in The Red Shoes,
Shearer took on only a few further movie roles, preferring professional
dance to acting.
In 1949 she was a member of the Sadler's Wells Ballet as it made its first
US appearance at the Metropolitan Opera House and subsequently toured
the eastern United States and Canada.
Alternating in principal roles with prima ballerina Margot Fonteyn, Shearer
was acclaimed by critics for her "wonderful skill and precision".
Later roles in films such as 1955's The Man Who Loved Redheads and 1960's
Peeping Tom failed to match Shearer's iconic performance in The Red Shoes.
IT SAYS something significant about Moira Shearer’s career that,
having become at only 22 one of the most famous ballerinas in the world,
she chose in later years to define her occupation in her Who’s Who
entry simply as “writer”. That is at least partly because,
she said later, she loathed her most celebrated role, as the ballerina
in the film The Red Shoes (1948). “I was forced into it”,
she said, and found afterwards what she called a solid wall of prejudice
against her ballet career, from audiences, critics and even other dancers.
Born in Dunfermline, Fife, in 1926, her full name was Moira Shearer King.
Her first dancing lessons were received in Northern Rhodesia, where the
family had temporarily moved during her childhood, but her main professional
training was in London, first with Flora Fairbairn and then at the Legat
and Sadler’s Wells schools.
She made her stage debut in 1941 with the newly formed International Ballet
and joined Sadler’s Wells Ballet the following year. During her
first season with that company she danced her first leading role, in Les
In 1943 she attracted much attention when Frederick Ashton, on leave from
the RAF to create The Quest (based on Spenser’s The Fairy Queen),
cast her as Pride in the Seven Deadly Sins episode. Other roles were created
for her during the war by Ninette de Valois in Promenade, Robert Helpmann
in Miracle in the Gorbals, and Andrée Howard in The Spider’s
Banquet. She also took other parts as varied as a very smooth White Skater
in Les Patineurs and a witty Polka in Façade.
When the Sadler’s Wells Ballet moved to Covent Garden in February
1946 and reopened the Opera House with a season of The Sleeping Beauty,
Moira Shearer was given her first ballerina role as Princess Aurora, at
first in matinee performances, but soon alternating with Fonteyn. She
was also chosen by Ashton that same year as one of the three women in
his creation of Symphonic Variations, the pure-dance work which set the
seal on his inventive genius.
From an early age, Shearer had wanted to make her mark entirely by her
ability as a dancer, and was unhappy at being singled out often for her
exceptionally beautiful face and striking red hair. She was therefore
somewhat doubtful about accepting an invitation to star in The Red Shoes,
but was persuaded by de Valois that any success she achieved in this would
be to the benefit of the company as a whole. In the event, the film achieved
a fame beyond all expectations and her performance as the ballerina, acting
as well as dancing, brought her international renown.
Her ballet roles, of course, had already involved the physical elements
of acting, and luckily she had a good speaking voice. De Valois had been
right in predicting that the film would make ballet more widely popular
Directly after completing it, however, Shearer returned to Covent Garden
where, in 1948, she danced in two more creations by Ashton, as the Young
Wife in Don Juan and in the title part of Cinderella, taking over the
first performance of the latter from Fonteyn, who had suffered an injury.
By this time Shearer was already dancing also the ballerina roles in Coppelia
and Swan Lake, and soon afterwards she danced her first Giselle. Leonide
Massine chose to partner her when he mounted La Boutique Fantasque for
the company, gave her another lead in Mam’zelle Angot and created
a role for her in Clock Symphony. Her other leading parts included Julia
in A Wedding Bouquet and the central roles in Sc ènes de Ballet,
both by Ashton, and George Balanchine’s Ballet Imperial. She reported
that Balanchine preferred her crisp, technical assurance in this to Fonteyn’s
lyricism. In 1950 she appeared in Paris as guest star in Roland Petit’s
Her next film was The Tales of Hoffmann (1951), in which she again had
a dancing role. She was, however, becoming increasingly dissatisfied with
her dancing career, probably because of a feeling that she was not taken
seriously but tolerated for her looks and prestige. In 1952 she left the
Sadler’s Wells Ballet (although she subsequently made a few guest
appearances) and later danced for a short time with Festival Ballet.
She turned to acting, in the films The Story of Three Loves (1953) and
The Man Who Loved Redheads (1955), then as Titania in a spectacular Old
Vic production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream which was mounted for
the 1954 Edinburgh Festival and later toured Canada and the US. She and
Helpmann, who was playing Oberon, also performed Stravinsky’s The
Soldier’s Tale at Edinburgh.
There followed a season with the Bristol Old Vic, where her roles included
Shaw’s Major Barbara, and a tour as Sally Bowles in I Am A Camera.
She also made two further films in 1960: dramatic in Peeping Tom and a
dancing comeback as Roxanne in Petit’s Cyrano de Bergerac in the
three-ballet film Black Tights.
However, she soon withdrew into private life. She had married Ludovic
Kennedy in 1950 and now devoted herself to the duties of a wife and mother.
There were, however, occasional lecture tours, individually or with her
husband. She served on the Scottish Arts Council, 1971-73, and regularly
reviewed books for The Daily Telegraph and The Sunday Telegraph. Later
she wrote two books: Balletmaster: A Dancer’s View of George Balanchine
(1986), and a biography of Ellen Terry (1998).
During 1978, Shearer appeared in two further plays, nicely contrasted
roles in The Cherry Orchard and Hay Fever, and in 1987 she played the
mother of the painter L. S. Lowry in Gillian Lynne’s creation A
Simple Man with Northern Ballet Theatre for BBC Television.
Her farewell appearance on stage was not until 1994, in a production of
The Aspern Papers. Her last dancing role had been created specially for
her by Peter Darrell, director of the Scottish Ballet, in Gold Diggers,
for a Glasgow gala in 1980, leading all the men of the company in a high-kicking
routine to an arrangement of Tea for Two.
Although she remained active in so many categories, it is as a dancer
that Shearer will be remembered, especially as The Red Shoes still appears
frequently on television.
Her early success in ballet did indeed arise partly from her looks. Even
before she took leading roles, nobody could help noticing her. Once she
had established herself, however, her glamour made a positive contribution
to the works in which she appeared, and it was supported by an assured
professionalism. She gave no evidence of great emotional depth in her
performances, but in roles demanding a lyrical or classical purity she
danced with exceptional facility and flair, which led several choreographers
to make interesting use of her talents in new works.
She cut short her dancing career when she could have been expected to
be approaching the peak of her abilities. By that time, however, she had
already made a unique and irreplaceable contribution to the national and
international standing of ballet.
She is survived by her husband, and by a son and three daughters.
Moira Shearer, ballet dancer and actress, was born on January 17, 1926.
She died on January 31, 2006, aged 80.